It was a funeral of a man who was not known for anything. As far as anyone could tell, the man had no relatives, and no friends, or even acquaintances. Certainly, none of them came to honour his memory.
That memory itself was vague. No one could recall much about his life. Igna, the owner of the bookshop on Linden, said that all that she could remember was how the man wandered the streets around her bookshop, and although sometimes he came in, he just as aimlessly wandered around the bookshop and always left without buying any books or even starting a conversation.
The man's scarcity of words was remembered also by Elsten, who worked at the bakery by the Central Square. Elsten would recall that the man sometimes dropped by the bakery, never at the same time of the day and often not appearing for days on end. He bought a different baked good every time, often ones that were a day old, and left without talking. Elsten admitted she had assumed the man could not speak, until one day he came to the bakery at three thirty-one, smiled, and said "Hello."
No one knew if the man had been employed, or how he occupied his time. Fredrik said that someone told him the man was an artist, but no art was found anywhere in his small flat overlooking the Tiller Bridge. There were, in fact, no books or any other objects of culture or entertainment at his residence, other than, someone said, a small volume of poetry by lesser known poets of the previous century. That much was true. When the Chief Investigator inspected the book for any notes, marks, or dents made by a fingernail, mostly out of his own curiosity, she found nothing. So, while it was certain that the book had been in the man's possession, no one could say for sure if the man had ever read it, let alone if any of the poems were favoured by him more than others.
In short, the man's life was a mystery, albeit, most agreed, a mystery that hid nothing behind it. Kredis, the newspaper reporter, spent the week between his dropping dead by the cinema on Ponwak street to his funeral trying to find out something about his life that would grip and intrigue her readers. Despite her efforts, she came up with nothing other than the aforementioned fact about his owning a book of lesser known poetry.
Therefore, on the basis of all this evidence, most residents of the town agreed that the man did nothing, achieved nothing, and would probably be remembered for nothing. Still, a number of them came to his funeral, if only because he had lived in the town, and they wanted him to be seen off by someone, even if none of them had known him or had any interest in his life before he died.
At the funeral, the civil officiant asked if anyone had anything to say in the man's memory. No one who came had been close to the man, and so the officiant did not expect anyone to speak up. She had a piece of paper with a speech prepared for occasions when the deceased person had no known family and no known friends. She had already taken it out of her jacket and was smoothening it out in front of her, when, to the surprise of her and everyone else, Vetton, a teacher at one of the town's schools, rose from his seat and announced that he wanted to speak. There was a murmur among the small crowd. Itta, a member of the town's council, asked Gritta, the headmaster of the school where Vetton taught mathematics, if he and the man had been in any way related. As far as Gritta knew, he was not.
"Are you a relative?" the officiant, too, asked incredulously. "Or, perhaps, a friend?"
"If I were not," replied Vetton, "would that preclude me from speaking?"
"No, of course not," said the officiant, and gestured for Vetton to come forward.
Vetton walked over to the platform and stood by the officiant, who had now moved aside.
"Indeed, as you might suspect, I was in no way related to the man we are putting into the ground today, nor was I his friend, nor did I know much about him at all."
Vetton spoke softly, but with a certain gravity that electrified the people in front of him. Even Jarko, an accountant and a part time photographer for the same newspaper which employed Kredis, who had been nodding off, immediately returned to alertness.
"I suspect none of us knew much about him. I know that no one from his family is here ― otherwise we would have already seen them ― and I fear the man did not have any family to speak of, just as, I believe, he did not have any friends. Yes, to be sure, we all knew him just a little, because we've seen him walk around the town or feed old bread to ducks out by the Ponds, but ― and please correct me if this is false ― I don't believe that any one of us have ever heard him talk at length."
Vetton stopped, waiting to see if anyone would correct him. No one did. A few people, one of them Elsten from the bakery, mumbled that they could barely get him to say hello.
"So," Vetton continued, "it seems true, then, that no one really knew this man. No one admired this man, but, also, no one hated him. And that, I say, is why we need to celebrate his life, as we might not celebrate the life of someone else. Why, may you ask?"
A few attendees did ask.
"We have to celebrate his life precisely since he spent it doing nothing that would inspire love, or hate, or admiration, or revulsion. How many men had earned devotion and respect at the expense of someone else's pain? I cannot count. This man led no one and inspired no one. How many men who led with inspiration morphed into dictators and tyrants? I cannot count.
This man had neither family nor friends, and we know no one who could claim to love him.
How many men, friends, husbands, fathers had been loved, and then hurt
those who loved them? I cannot count. This man created nothing, he left nothing that
would last, and offered nothing to the world. How many men's inventions and undying
contributions to our planet have been used to kill, or torture, or instil emotional distress? I cannot count because there simply are too many. And yet whenever such men die, there's always someone who speaks up and glorifies their life, and others join in, and then these men, who – yes, perhaps unwillingly – have hurt, are celebrated.
Well, I propose to you, my fellow people of this town, that if we celebrate the lives of men like that, we must then celebrate especially the life of this man here, the one we're burying today. For if those men we celebrate had brought us anything we might remember, they'd just as surely left things that some of us are trying to forget. And in this way, this man, who has done nothing, achieved more greatness than those other men ― and more than all of us combined ― because his life comprised one big, inarguable achievement, and that achievement is that by doing nothing all his life, this man," Vetton pointed to the man in the coffin,
"hurt no one, murdered no one, disappointed and embarrassed no one,
and isn't leaving anyone with memories of suffering or pain. And therefore his
life, whose only daily occupation was to wander our streets and feed old bread
to ducks, should be remembered most of all. He could've worked, he could've acted with ambition, he also could have loved, but he restrained his urge to do those things, and thus he leaves us leaving no regrets. That's why, I think, that all of us should tell him ―
he, of course, is dead, but still ― 'Goodbye, o man whom no one cared about or knew and never talked to. You never did us any good, but neither did you do us any evil.
For that, we honour you. For that, we will remember you. For that, we wish that some who did and built and battled and destroyed, had stopped, and thought, and followed your example of inaction. Because if we remember you for nothing, then we’ll remember you for nothing bad."
Having said all that without a single pause, Vetton finally stopped talking and started clapping. After some time, others joined him. Soon enough, Itta, Gritta, Kredis, Jarko, Igna, Elsten, Fredrik, the officiant, and then the rest of them stood up and clapped.